An aging archaeologist thinks he's made the find of his life!
I’m out of shape, I thought, puffing my way through the tall razor-edged grass. And Africa never used to feel this hot! I paused for a moment, raising my sunglasses to mop sweat from my forehead and the bridge of my substantial nose. It had been almost twelve years since my last trip here and I’d grown soft. The strong youth who had swashed and buckled his way through Egypt more than a decade ago was gone, replaced by the paunchy, middle-aged gentleman who now stood in his sweat-stained khakis amid the cutty-grass.
“Onwards!” I said aloud, trying to motivate myself to continue my journey. It was only four hours til nightfall and it would take me at least that long to reach the site. My students would be waiting for me there. I knew none of them would dare to touch the tomb without me. Finding Rachinada’s tomb had been my life’s work and now that I thought I’d found it, nobody was going in before I did.
Jeremy Goldman had called me three days earlier, his voice shaking with excitement on the telephone. The map I’d sent several months before seemed to match the ancient papyrus we had uncovered on another dig. It appeared we had finally discovered the site we had been hunting since we both brash youths. I had jumped on the first flight I could get into Egypt. And now, here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, under the baking sun as I walked on towards the thing I had dreamed of throughout my adult life.
Finding this tomb had consumed me. I went on my first dig as an archaeology student at twenty-one, and it changed my life forever. As a doctorate student I worked with a well-known professor, Francis Druthers, and it was while excavating a site with him that I first found evidence of the pharaoh Rachinada. And from that moment on, my course in life was set. Every moment I could spare was spent poring over maps and documents, hunting for the elusive spot where the tomb might lie.
At the top of a hill I paused again to wipe sweat from my brow. The sun was lower in the sky now, but it did not seem cooler. In the distance I could see the river, my destination, snaking its way across the burnished landscape.
“Pick up the pace,” I told myself. “If you get cracking you’ll be there in less than two hours. And you can be sure Jeremy will have a nice scotch waiting for you!” I set off again, the thought of that scotch spurring me on. As I skidded my way down the dusty hill I thought ruefully that my belly might not be quite so soft if I hadn’t that penchant for a single malt.
I made the site just as the sun disappeared behind the low hills. The valley and river were bathed in apricot light as I rounded the bend and stumbled upon my colleagues’ camp.
“Professor!” Jeremy was there to meet me, barely recognisable in his Arab garb.
“Mr Goldman!” I exclaimed, stumbling into his warm embrace. “Is this really it?”
“Yes Professor,” Jeremy nodded, the excitement evident in his dancing eyes. “I believe it is.” I didn’t bother stowing my gear, just dropped the pack to the ground and followed Jeremy to the place. I ran my hand across the stone, feeling the residual heat from the day’s sun. A part of me wanted to go in now, just tear out that stone and enter the tomb, damn protocol. But I knew I would never do it. After so many years of searching, I knew I had to do it properly. And that would have to wait until morning.
“Come,” Jeremy said brusquely. “Let’s get you settled. You must be parched after that trek! You have a good team of students this time around. Jennifer is a sinfully good cook!”
“You’re right,” I nodded as I turned reluctantly from the entrance to the tomb. “I am parched. And starving!”
The tents were pitched in a rough circle around the fireplace. Jeremy showed me to the largest one and I tossed my dusty pack through the door flaps, watching it bounce off an air-mattress on the floor. My three graduate students were sitting around the fire, drinks in hand.
“You’re here!” Colin stood and came towards me, hand outstretched. “You must be so excited, Professor.”
“Excited?” I cocked my head. “Yes, I am. Now, tell me what you have found so far.” I sat down on a sack of rice and accepted the scotch Jeremy thrust into my hand. The students excitedly brought me photographs to look at. In the flickering firelight I studied everything, my excitement building as I saw Rachinada’s glyph repeated in several photos.
“Tomorrow we go in,” I said firmly. “Good work, everyone. It looks like this really is it!”
I slept badly that night. Excitement made my blood quicken. I also have to admit to a little fear. More than once before I had been sure I’d found the tomb only to go in and discover I was wrong. And I had also been beaten to a find before too. Two rival archaeologists also hunted Rachinada. I wasn’t sure that I could handle another disappointment. And this late in my career it would be difficult, nigh on impossible, to make another attempt. Shortly before dawn I finally fell asleep.
Jeremy looked at me as we inserted the crowbars behind the entrance-stone.
“Here goes, Old Man,” he said affectionately. “This could be our ticket into the history books!”
“Shut up,” I told him. “Just get your shoulder into it.” We grinned at one another then settled into our places, the three students close behind. We leaned into the crowbars and felt the stone give slightly. Then leaned harder and felt it sluggishly pull away. Dry, aged air breathed out from behind as we rolled the stone to the side. It was a short gust, dusty and smelling distinctively of something I have no name for but antiquity. I stood just inside the archway and peered into the darkness, breathing in the dusty old smell of the tomb.
I ran my torch around the walls, identifying a tunnel. Perfectly preserved hieroglyphics lined the walls in a colourful frieze. I recognised Rachinada’s royal seal and felt my heart leap in my chest.
“Make sure you get photographs of everything,” I threw to the students behind me. Colin had the camera and I could hear its digital whine. We paced the tunnel slowly, studying the glyphs and admiring the construction. After several metres the frieze ended and the tunnel opened out into a huge, high-vaulted room. It felt suddenly cooler and the hair on the back of my neck prickled. I shone my torch carefully in front of me, checking for bottomless pits, or any other hazard.
Then I saw it.
The sarcophagus sat in the very centre of the room, surrounded by various smaller vessels.
“My lord!” I heard Jeremy whisper. “We really have got it!”
“Slowly,” I warned, unable to hide the thrill I felt seeing that coffin lying there. “Let’s get it open.” I shouldered my crowbar once more and crossed the room, feet scuffing through the light covering of sand on the stone floor. The lid was black stone, ornately carved and quite beautiful. An image of the person held within was etched into the stone and on the person’s chest was the royal seal of Rachinada.
“It’s him,” I breathed, reaching out to trace the familiar shapes: a cat, water, reeds and a symbol that looked like a bird of prey.
For a long time we knelt by the sarcophagus, unable to bring ourselves to pry open the lid just yet. We poked through the other vessels, finding treasure, food and drink containers and the Canopic jars that held the pharaoh’s internal organs. Colin photographed everything while the other two students labelled and catalogued every item.
“The mummy’s what we need,” Jeremy said unnecessarily. “We should open it up.”
“Yes,” I nodded and climbed stiffly to my feet. “Let’s crack this thing.”
It took several attempts to lift the lid. That black stone was heavy. Finally we managed to lift it a little and slide it back from the base of the sarcophagus. Breathing heavily and pushing hair back off my forehead I shone my torch into the coffin. I expected to see a painted image, a wooden case with images of the king painted on it. But that was not what I saw. What I saw was a small, white square. With a feeling of horror I reached in to pick up the simple white envelope and found my name scrawled across the front in that distinctive violet ink. With shaking hands I pulled out the single sheet of paper within.
HA HA. BEAT YOU!
And I'm a girl...